Odawa Indian tribe hosts Michigan’s first legal same-sex marriage

In case you missed it:

Tim LaCroix, 53, of Boyne City, and his longtime partner Gene Barfield, 60, of Boyne City are married at the government headquarters complex of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians on Friday March 15, 2013 in Harbor Springs.
Tim LaCroix, 53, of Boyne City, and his longtime partner Gene Barfield, 60, of Boyne City are married at the government headquarters complex of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians on Friday March 15, 2013 in Harbor Springs. / Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press

ByJohn Carlisle

Detroit Free Press Columnist

The groom wore a black sweater. The other groom wore a red one.

Tim LaCroix, 53, and Gene Barfield, 60, were in the enrollment office this morning (March 15th) at the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians government facility.

The couple took turns filling out an application to get married, paid the $15 fee and received a marriage license. Both smiled nervously.

It was a historic day. Not just for them and not just for the tribe that LaCroix belongs to, but for Michigan too.

The two men were about to be the first same-sex couple to be legally married in this state.

Last year, the Odawa tribal council debated a resolution to recognize gay marriage, but the measure failed by one vote. When it was reintroduced, the language was changed to require at least one spouse to be a tribal citizen, and that swayed support. On March 2, it passed by a 5-4 vote.

All that was needed was the signature of tribal chairman Dexter McNamara, whose veto would have required a difficult 7-2 council majority to override.

McNamara not only signed it, but also asked to perform the wedding ceremony.

“I’ve always felt that either you believe in equal rights or you are prejudiced,” McNamara said. “We don’t have a dividing line in this tribe. Everyone deserves to live the lives of their choice.”

Out of 500 federally recognized tribes in the country, and a dozen in Michigan, the Odawa tribe became the first ever to legalize gay marriage in the state and only the third in the nation.

And because of tribal sovereignty, neither the state’s constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage nor the federal Defense of Marriage Act can stop them.

“This is their turf,” Barfield said, standing in the tribal offices. “They have their own government, they have their own police force, they have their own rules and regulations. They’re very big on respect, and for them to say to us ‘We respect your relationship and your prerogative to define it as you choose’ is really special.”

“I’m so proud of my tribe for doing this,” LaCroix added. “I just can’t say enough.”

The couple met in 1983 while both were on active duty in the Navy. They live in northern Michigan, where they garden, assemble model railroads and share two dogs and a cat.

“We’ve been partners for 30 years in the way people use the word ‘partner’ for a same sex couple,” Barfield said. “Now we’re not going to be partners anymore. We’re going to be spouses.”

They wanted to get married at the signing ceremony for the statute, which gave them barely two weeks to prepare.

They hastily ordered cupcakes for the impromptu reception to follow. They found a tribal member to perform a traditional ceremony, alongside the secular one. They made little pouches of tobacco to hand out in a nod to tribal custom. And they invited friends and family from this small-town region.

About three dozen guests filled the seats arranged in the lobby this morning. There were relatives from both sides, beefy tribal members, employees who work in the building and wanted to wish the couple well, and a contingent from the hardware store where LaCroix works.

“We’re just all giddy over it,” said Kathy Hughes, his longtime coworker. “They’re like family to us.”

Once McNamara signed the bill, tribe communications coordinator Annette VanDeCar acknowledged it was a controversial decision.

“I’ll be honest,” she told the crowd. “There are people in our community that aren’t supportive of what is happening today, but that’s OK. We as Indians are taught to respect people as individuals, and as individual people have the right to decide what is best for them.”

For this couple, a few tweaks were necessary in both the paperwork and the ceremony, like changing the word “wife” in the vows and on the license application to “spouse.” But it otherwise was a standard civil ceremony.

The chairman read the vows, and LaCroix went first in repeating them.

For better or for worse, to love and to cherish, from this day forward.

“I do,” he said.

Then came Barfield’s turn, and his composure melted a little. As he read the vows, his voice began to crack and his eyes grew moist. All the while, he looked at LaCroix with a beam of a smile.

“I do.”

They exchanged rings, and the chairman pronounced them married. They punctuated the ceremony with a brief kiss and a long, long hug.

Then they repeated it with a tribal ceremony using the sage, the feathers, the maple branch and the drum that were carefully laid out on a table.

There were no activist speeches, no protesters — only a crowd witnessing a wedding that was unlike any they’d ever seen, but was really no different than any other.

“We’re just so excited for them,” Hughes said. “They’ve been together 30 years. It’s longer than a lot of marriages have lasted.”

John Carlisle is a columnist and can be reached at jcarlisle@freepress.com or 313-222-6582.

Tim Fox Fails His First Test

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One of the first tests for statewide elected officials in Montana is the decision on their top staff appointments. On Friday, Tim Fox failed the test.

Fox announced 4 straight, white men as leadership in his office, and announced a female executive assistant (not pictured). The most notable of his selections is Jon Bennion, the former lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce. (I’ll have more to say on this appointment in a later post.)

These appointments make it painfully clear that diversity is not a priority for him.

Now, diversity for the sake of diversity isn’t inherently valuable. But when you seek a diverse staff so that you have a broad range of experiences, histories and viewpoints you can make your organization–in this instance the Department of Justice–a stronger entity.

The Department of Justice plays such a huge role in the lives of Montanans that this diversity of experience would improve our state. For example, the DoJ oversees all the law enforcement in the state, and we all know that there has been a history of real and perceived racial profiling by law enforcement in tribal communities. By selecting these men as his senior staff, Fox doesn’t have someone providing him with a first-hand understanding of this issue, so Fox is incapable of making an informed decision to do something about it.

It’s important to understand that building a diverse team isn’t something that happens by itself. It’s something that takes work and a concerted effort to make it a priority. Governor Schweitzer is the model on this.

Anyone who has followed Schweitzer’s time in office knows that he has more Native Americans in his staff and cabinet than all previous Montana governors combined. This emphasis on diversity in his staff has paid off, as Schweitzer has enjoyed a close relationship with Montana’s tribal communities to solve some of the problems these communities have faced.

Schweitzer has also put women and members of the LGBT community into senior staff and advisory positions.

Hopefully Fox will take a page out of Governor Schweitzer’s book, and for the sake of Montana, add a little bit of diversity to his staff.

In other appointment news, I’m closely following Governor-elect Bullock’s appointments. We all know that Bullock stumbled during the campaign when it comes to LGBT issues. Hopefully, he’ll follow our advice and appoint some LGBT people to his staff or cabinet. We have several current and former LGBT legislators that would be fantastic choices.

Tribal Toolkit Announced: Promotes LGBT Awareness In Indian Country

From Lewis And Clark College:

On behalf of our author group and sponsors (Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program, the Native American Program of Legal Aid Services of Oregon, Western States Center, Basic Rights Oregon and the Pride Foundation) we are proud to announce the Tribal Equity Toolkit is now complete and free and available to the world:

https://graduate.lclark.edu/programs/indigenous_ways_of_knowing/tribal_equity_toolkit/

The Tribal Equity Toolkit: Tribal Resolutions and Codes to Support Two Spirit and LGBT Justice in Indian Country, is a first-of-its-kind collection of legal resources that helps tribal government officials identify discrimination in tribal codes and regulations and offers draft language to strengthen and promote LGBT equality.

An amazing opportunity to create understanding and promote awareness. Check it out!

Newly Legal: Same-sex Marriage In Washington State

And it’s not what you think.  Nathan Koppel reports:

The Suquamish Tribal Council in Washington has formally changed its ordinances to allow same-sex couples to marry.

The change grants gay and lesbian couples all the rights afforded to heterosexual couples on the reservation, according to this report in the Kitsap Sun.

Is this the first Native American tribe to grant same-sex marriage rights?

No, that would be the Coquille Indian Tribe in Coos Bay, Ore in 2009, the Sun reports.

Now for a tougher question: What rights do same-sex couples married on Squamish land have once they leave the reservation?

Anyone see a trend? Questions answered here.

Two Spirits: Coming To Montana PBS

Two Spirits, a film by Lydia Nibley, is coming to PBS this Sunday, June 12th at 10:30 pm through the program Independent Lens– and I want to encourage you to watch it.

It is an amazing film which “interweaves the tragic story of a mother’s loss of her son with a revealing look at a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female- and many Native American cultures held places of honor for people of integrated genders.”

I’ve talked about this remarkable film before. My friend and collaborator Gregory Hinton gave an excellent introduction to the film when it was screened at the Autry as part of our Out West series last summer. Part of his memorable remarks were these:

The city and the country have a lot to catch up on.  We have much to teach each other. To protect our rural kids, and our rural elders, our community must be visible, like a porch light streaming into the western night sky.

And now, to Lydia and Russell, the filmmakers of Two Spirits, thank you for your advocacy by flipping on the switch.

Two Spirits is the story of Fred Martinez, a Navajo boy who was also a girl. It is also the story of Pauline Mitchell, the mother who loved him, who prayed every night for his safe return.

It speaks to the prescience of the Navajo culture.  Imagine a time where Two Spirit children were adored, their talents cultivated, their spirits revered.

The World Premiere of Two Spirits was sponsored by the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver.  I recently told Judy Shepard that in addition to experiencing bias as a gay man, I have also experienced bias as a rural westerner. I asked her if Matt loved Wyoming. Judy told me he stayed in Laramie because it was home and he loved the out of doors.

The love of mothers and courage of sons astonishes.

Stay home if you want. Be who you are. This is the mission of Out West.

Check your local listings here, and watch the trailer below:

“The Rainbow Belongs To Everybody”

So says Patricia Nell Warren in a beautiful post on Bilerico today.